Virtual Valuables

Protect What You're Storing Online

Just as you take care of the valuable items in your home, you should do the same for the information you’re storing virtually—whether it’s your financial records, scans of your passport, or even your address or phone number.

Even if you protect your accounts, service providers sometimes get hacked, so it’s a good idea to limit how much identifying or sensitive information about yourself you store online. In fact, all that data is on someone else’s server, not your own device, so you have less control over who can access it.

Let’s talk about tidying up what you keep online, so there are fewer valuables for someone to steal if they break into your account.

Spring clean for every season

The kinds of data that are important to erase or protect might surprise you. Flip to reveal why it’s a good idea to clean out each of the following types of information from your online accounts.

IDs that identify you uniquely

IDs that identify you uniquely

These are the most important to delete from your online accounts as soon as possible. This means not only scans or photos of your IDs, but also the information that is found within them.

In fact, no company you’re communicating with should ever be asking you to send your national ID, driver’s license, passport, social security number or similar IDs by email — email sticks around online for too long, in too many unsecured places.

Companies and agencies should have a secure, dedicated site for receiving your identifying information (it should have HTTPS in the web address). If there is no way around sending these insecurely, delete them completely from your account as soon as you have confirmation they were received. (Keep reading for more information on thorough deletion.)

Your contacts

Your contacts

It may seem surprising to say you should clean up your contact list — after all, your contacts are central to your social media and email. Old, compromised accounts are often used to send malicious or spam email to people you know. And connections on LinkedIn have been used to steal sensitive information (1).

It's a good idea to periodically go over your address book contacts, as well as connections on social media, and clear out people you don’t remember anymore. Or download and delete your contact lists entirely from accounts you don’t use anymore.

Tax returns and credit report

Tax returns and credit report

Like your IDs, these may have information in them which could be used to create new, fake financial accounts in your name. Download and delete.

Email that comes from your bank, credit card or payment services like PayPal or Venmo

Email that comes from your bank, credit card or payment services like PayPal or Venmo

If your account is breached, these emails can tell the criminal looking at your account where to find your other accounts — and the email address in question is probably what you’ve set up to recover those accounts, so they can get into them, too.

Save the relevant information by downloading it to your computer, then delete these emails.

Do a search through old emails for these documents as well, and download then delete. Read on to find out how to do this!

Old social media accounts or email accounts

Old social media accounts or email accounts

You may not be on MySpace, Friendster, that old secret Tumblr or your junk email account anymore, but those accounts still exist, and they may even contain information you want to keep private, or ways to sneak into accounts you still use (through recovery methods or re-used passwords).

Closing these accounts or deleting their contents is important to cleaning up your online footprint. If you still want to keep them, at the very least update the password.

Emails from your employer or school

Emails from your employer or school

Smaller companies and schools are often not up to speed on the best privacy and security practices. Check old emails from your job or school for things like your ID numbers, passwords, information on where you've lived, and download and delete it accordingly.

Now let’s talk about how to do this.

1. Compromised LinkedIn accounts used to send phishing links via private message and InMail

How to do a virtual clean up

There are a couple of ways to go about deleting what you don't want online while keeping what you want.

“Spot clean”: search for specific information

When considering what information is most important for you to keep private, think about the items you protect in your wallet: your ID, your bank cards, or your health insurance card, to name a few. One way to hide the virtual versions of these is to clear your email account of specific information before a takeover happens.

For starters, search your inbox for the name of your bank or credit card company—how easy would it be for someone who breaks in to find our where your money is stored? You may want to specifically search for the email address those accounts are sending from, so that you don't end up sweeping up emails which are about those accounts but not from them.

Above the check-boxes which let you select individual emails, there is usually a check-box that will let you select everything in your search. If you take this bulk action approach, you may want to give it a quick look and un-check specific emails you wish to keep before you hit “delete”.

Facebook, Instagram and other sites may also have “manage your data” and "access your data” options that let you remove contacts or tags, change how your location data is displayed or control certain information like events or pages by category.

“Deep clean”: archive, delete everything, and start over

To gain more control over what you share, consider archiving everything in an account, downloading it to your computer, and deleting the account contents. This way, you can start fresh and be more careful to download and delete new sensitive information that arrives (like bank statements) after you've read them.


On that page, they will give you an option to export different kinds of data, like your files in Drive, your Gmail, your contacts, and your Fit activity data. You can download all of it, or just take some. Because they collect so much information from you, Google will take a while to gather it up and then send you an email when the archive is ready for you to download.

For many webmail services, you can use a desktop email program like Thunderbird to download your email to your computer (and even continue to use it as your main email app). Or you can use an app like MailStore to pull down your archive.

Tip! You will want to delete a lot of junk mail before you do this, as the archive will take up a lot of room on your hard drive.

Don’t just delete — also empty your trash can!

Email accounts and other sites and apps often keep a “trash can” where they store things you've deleted for some period of time. This can help if you've deleted something accidentally.

The automatic delete times vary widely across tools. In Gmail for example, it's 30 days, but in Google Photos it’s 60 days (and in Google Drive, the trash doesn’t automatically empty at all). This might get in your way if you were trying to get rid of sensitive files.

When you delete sensitive files, always check the trash folder for a way to permanently delete everything now, without it lingering. There may be an option like “empty trash” or “delete permanently” — that's what you're looking for.

In Gmail, when you click on your “trash” folder, it gives you a link at the top of your screen which says ”empty trash now.” Check the settings for each app or site; there may also be a way to set the delete period so it's shorter, say, one day instead of 30.

Note: Some services archive contents, so be sure to also check and clear out the “archive” section of your website or app.

Support is there, if you need it

Many sites, like Facebook and Instagram, have advice on what to do and who to contact if you think your account or someone else’s account has been taken over. Ask a friend to file a report in case you can’t. The options will be explained in the ‘Account’ or ‘Help Center’ area.

A little bit of care goes a long way

Protecting your virtual valuables isn’t that much harder than protecting your wallet or keys. Even just improving your passwords can have a big effect. Don’t get overwhelmed by how much there is to do — just take a couple of steps at a time.

If you found these tips helpful, be sure to check out Lock Your Digital Door: Care for Your Account Security for more tips.

Last updated on: 7/14/2020